Yesterday Thorzul kicked off his second annual "Trade Me Anything" campaign. Since Guillermo Quiroz was the only Oriole he had available, I placed my claim quickly. I remarked to him that somebody had to look out for all of the poor-hitting backup catchers of the world. That got me thinking about the Birds' history of spotty receivers. Since stalwart Chris Hoiles retired, they've had a never-ending procession of them, including "Chief", Geronimo Gil.
Charles Johnson looked like a stable force when he arrived in 1999, hitting .251 with 16 home runs and throwing out 38% of would-be base stealers. He exploded the following year: .294 with 21 homers in the first half. But the team was awful, and they shipped him to Chicago with Harold Baines in a fire sale. In return they got Brook Fordyce and some minor leaguers. A .322 average and 9 home runs in 53 games made O's fans positively giddy, despite the fact that he was already 30 and hadn't established himself until the previous season. In 2001, Fordyce fell off the cliff (.209-5 HR-19 RBI). This gave the Chief an opening, and he hit .232 in his only season as the starter, though he did toss out 36% of baserunners. 2003 was another year of Brook and Geronimo, who combined to hit .261 with 47 runs driven in. That wasn't going to cut it.
Attempting to spend their way into contention in 2004, the O's lured Javy Lopez to Baltimore, straight off of a 43-homer effort that screamed "contract year". His .316 average gave the club a boost, but he fell off to 23 dingers and his defense was...well, let's just say that he was never known for his defense, and that was before he reached his mid-30's. Injuries limited him to 103 games and a .278 mark the next year, which convinced the Orioles to fork out another big contract for Ramon Hernandez. The ex-Padre shined in 2006 (.275-23-91, 43% CS) as Lopez sulked in a DH and occasional catcher. Of course, Ramon followed a familiar pattern and took a turn for the worse in 2007 and on into 2008: injuries, questions about conditioning and hustle, and lessened production at and behind the plate.
As for the bevy of backups, it's like a who's who of offensively-challenged journeymen and unheralded youngsters. I'll just let the names speak for themselves: Mike Figga, Lenny Webster, Tommy Davis, Greg Myers, Fernando Lunar, Willie Morales, Mike Kinkade, Izzy Molina, Raul Casanova, Robert Machado, Keith Osik, Ken Huckaby, Sal Fasano (who I love, and who hit an inexplicable 11 HR in 160 AB with us), Eli Whiteside, Raul Chavez, Chris Widger, Danny Ardoin, Paul Bako, Alberto Castillo, JR House, Gustavo Molina, Quiroz, and Omir Santos. Eeeeewwwwwww.
The bleeding should stop very soon. Matt Wieters was drafted and signed in 2007 amid great fanfare, a mature collegiate catcher with a reputation for hitting a ton. Orioles fans (yours truly included) checked the Internet daily for Wieters updates as he destroyed the competition in his first year of pro baseball. He swatted .345 with 15 home runs at the highest level of A-ball, and was a midseason All-Star in the Carolina League. Trying to show restraint, the organization waited until midsummer to promote Matt to AA Bowie. He was even better there, hitting .365 with 12 homers and 51 RBI. He led the Baysox' drive to the playoffs, and was named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year. The eye-popping totals: .355 with a 1.054 OPS, more walks than strikeouts (82/76), 27 home runs, 91 RBI. He also drew raves for his smart and athletic style behind the plate. He's drawn comparisons to Joe Mauer, fellow Georgia Tech alum Jason Varitek, and Mike Piazza.
The team is playing their cards close to the vest, but it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which Wieters plays his way onto the team in Spring Training, much as AA-tested Nick Markakis did in 2006. The O's could play it cool and send Matt to AAA to start the season, but it would likely be in an attempt to delay his arbitration clock as Tampa Bay did this past season with Evan Longoria. If Ramon is still in Baltimore on Opening Day, and is still loafing after wild pitches and jogging to first base on weak ground balls, the shouts for Matt Wieters will be hard to ignore. Fans and scouts alike are penciling in the 22-year-old as the answer to Baltimore's decade-long search for a skilled and enduring catcher.
My fingers are crossed.